Baking Soda Supply Issues Leave Hospitals Scrambling

Centers postpone operations, delay chemotherapy

Hospitals across the country are racing to stockpile vials of a critical drug, even postponing operations or delaying chemotherapy treatments, because the country’s only two suppliers––Pfizer and Amphastar––have run out, according to an article in The New York Times. The critical drug? Sodium bicarbonate––commonly known as baking soda.

Sodium bicarbonate is vitally important for patients whose blood has become too acidic, the article notes. It is found on emergency crash carts and is used in open-heart surgery and as an antidote to certain poisons. Patients whose organs are failing are given the drug, and it is used in some types of chemotherapy. A little sodium bicarbonate can even take the sting out of getting stitches.

The shortage of sodium bicarbonate solution is only the latest example of an inexpensive hospital staple’s supply dwindling to a critical level, according to the article. In recent years, hundreds of generic injectable drugs have become scarce, vexing hospital administrators and government officials, who have called on the manufacturers to give better notice when they are about to run short.

Mark Sullivan, the head of pharmacy operations at Vanderbilt University Hospital and Clinics in Nashville, said the shortages typically occurred with cheaper, “bread-and-butter” hospital drugs, leading him to question whether manufacturers were investing enough in the production process needed to make a reliable supply.

“The specialty, high-dollar medicines—I don’t ever seem to see them experiencing shortages with those products,” he said.

Without an abundant supply of sodium bicarbonate, some hospitals are postponing elective procedures or are making difficult decisions about which patients merit the drug.

The situation with sodium bicarbonate solution appears to have begun in February when Pfizer, the main supplier, announced that the drug was in short supply. A spike in demand then caused Amphastar to run low. Now, even less-than-ideal alternatives to sodium bicarbonate, such as sodium acetate, are difficult to obtain.

A spokesman for Pfizer told the Times that the shortage of sodium bicarbonate was due to a manufacturing delay caused by an outside supplier. 

Source: The New York Times; May 21, 2017.